The second division of Norwegian black metal: Satyricon and Gorgoroth

Satyricon and Gorgoroth both achieved an undeserved level of fame in the post 2000 extreme metal scene. The former for fusing black metal with more conventional chord patterns and time signatures, creating a style now known as ‘black ‘n’ roll’. The latter for positioning themselves as the ugly and violent bastions of true black metal for the modern age, with little music of quality to back up their overstated aesthetic. But back in the day these two artists released music with great potential that was sadly never fully realised. But the first few offerings from both are still worth some spins.

Norway’s Gorgoroth are easy to overlook in the lexicon of classic black metal, when set alongside the giants of the scene, but their first three LPs – in total coming to barely an hour and half’s worth of music – remain something very special. They underwent many changes in clientele throughout the 1990s, eventually becoming a completely different line-up in the 2000s led by bassist King ov Hell and vocalist Ghaal, lesser musical minds when compared to Infernus, who steered Gorgoroth through their first set of releases.

After an ugly legal battle Ghaal and King were forbidden from continuing under the Gorgoroth name, allowing Infernus to reform yet again with a brand new lineup. No music of note has come out of this bitter dispute however. Back in the day, when Infernus was able to steer a conveyor belt of different session musicians and vocalists towards his vision, some infectiously energetic black metal resulted. ‘Pentagram’, the first and most coherent offering, dropped back in 1994.

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Now ‘Pentagram’ will always struggle to make a ‘best of 1994’ list simply because Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor, Burzum, and Enslaved all dropped seminal works that same year. But nevertheless there is something honest and passionate about the no-thrills intensity of the half an hour’s worth of music on offer here. The gimmick with Gorgoroth of this era was that there was no gimmick. This is quintessentially riff based black metal. Drums are energetic but largely there to add a blizzard of urgency through blastbeats and fills rather than a talking point all of their own. Hat’s vocals are at the very limit of high end black metal screeching, making any lyrics completely indiscernible.

No, it is Infernus’ talent for riffcraft that really lends this music weight. The drums follow in the wake of tremolo riffs tied together by simple harmonies and leads that guide us through a whirlwind of black energy. At their best, these musicians come across as collectively compelled by some power external to themselves, a sonic force maintaining cohesion at the very limits of speed and intensity. Yet crafted through riffs that still make musical sense to the listener even when played at such speeds. The closing number ‘Måneskyggens Slave’ is the most fully developed realisation of this, but the whole album offers a plethora of meaty riffs to get your teeth into.

It’s something of a shame that Gorgoroth could not maintain the momentum of ‘Pentagram’. Follow up ‘Antichrist’ has many memorable moments, but comes across as disjointed, and lasts barely twenty minutes. The third of the classic Gorgoroth albums, ‘Under the Sign of Hell’, works as a rawer, more primal version of ‘Pentagram’, and whilst this less graceful music is worth your time, it never reaches the same breath-taking heights of ‘Pentagram’. After this, Gorgoroth went through too many line-up changes and personal issues to maintain releases of quality. Maybe in an alternative timeline a different course was pursued, and Gorgoroth released many more albums of consistent quality, as it stands their career remains one of the big ‘what ifs?’ of the scene.

Satyricon went through no such issues with personnel, having been steered by Satyr and drummer Frost from the beginning. That did not stop them from falling for the Kerrang! friendly black ‘n’ roll dollar eventually though. But back in the day they were another promising artist trying to make their way in the shadow of superior minds. Their debut ‘Dark Medieval Times’, again released in 1994 (the winter of hate?), showed much potential.

Within the first few seconds of hitting the play button it’s apparent that Satyricon had been listening to their horror film scores. Synths are utilised to great effect, completing the wafer thin guitar tone and thudding drums. It oozes atmosphere from every angle, with the tremolo riffs mimicking the din of a snowstorm, high pitched vocals laced with reverb, and choral and string harmonies souring over it all, but Satyricon have not quite yet mastered disciplining these elements into cohesive musical structures.

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The music is sometimes broken up by ambient passages, acoustic passages with spoken word verses, and occasional breaks from tremolo riffs and blast-beats to addictive harmonies and arpeggios, but the transition into these passages is always sudden, jarring, and clumsy. However, the hooks and the atmosphere mean that such transitions don’t completely detract from the music. In some ways this album is a clumsy but nevertheless charming merge of Darkthrone’s ‘Ablaze in the Northern Sky’ and Emperor’s ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’.

Frost’s drumming in these early years apes that of Fenriz, and when combined with riffs that call to mind ‘A Paragon of Belial’ or ‘The Majesty of the Nightsky’ this music is at its strongest. Imitation may be forgivable in a debut, especially given that these musicians were very young at the time of this release. But whilst follow up ‘The Shadowthrone’ was to show more individuality, interesting music took a hit as a result. When Satyricon found their own voice, they were exposed as less fertile creative minds than their peers.

Whether both these artists were doomed to play second fiddle to the giants of their scene from the start, or whether they were both actually frauds that struck upon halfway decent music by chance is academic now. The result was that they both pandered to a lower ideal of image and theatre over music of substance in later years. But these early albums are still looked upon with fondness, and rightly so.

‘Dark Medieval Times’ never fails to hit the spot when it comes to cold, atmospheric ear candy black metal. But it works more like a disjointed montage of halfway decent riffs and ideas than as a unified work. Gorgoroth’s ‘Pentagram’ is a much more fluid beast that functions as a work of art in its own right. Many of the riffs serve to build to a level of intensity and passion rarely seen even in black metal, casting an almost trancelike spell upon the listener. It remains a shame that Gorgoroth could never quite get round to pursuing this route further on subsequent releases. But it’s my pick for this week, and as winter approaches, I recommend you revisit classic era Gorgoroth and give ‘Pentagram’ a spin.

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